How Do YU’s LGBTQ Students Navigate Their Religious Identities?
With an untrimmed beard, white button-down shirt, and midnight-black hat and suit, Leo Mongan (YC '23) doesn't look like your average Yeshiva University student.
The 20-year-old, who is Chabad-Lubavitch, stands out at the flagship university for Modern Orthodoxy. Being Lubavitch is enough to turn heads in a campus of mainly yeshivish, Modern Orthodox and modern Jews, but Mongan’s Chasidic affiliation is not all that sets him apart from most YU students. He is also an openly LGBTQ student.
“I have this [bisexual] flag pin,” he told me in the Mendel Gottesman Library, “and I’ve been thinking about wearing it around campus on my jacket. Will people’s minds just explode?”
Mongan is not easily boxable. He half-jokingly considers himself a “kabbalist-in-training,” often meditating and studying Kabbalistic texts like the Tanya in his free time, which is hardly found in his rigid daily schedule. Outside of Torah, the first-time on-campus junior enjoys swimming and studying languages, activities that don’t hold a candle to davening, which he says he “loves more than anything on the planet.” But that wasn’t always the case.
Mongan, who grew up religiously Conservative, traces the start of his religious growth back to when he was 13 and forged his steadfast connection to his local Chabad. He began keeping Shabbat in eleventh grade of high school and gradually followed more halakhot as time went on. After graduating in 2019, he went to yeshiva in Jerusalem, Israel for one year, before he began YU the year after.
On a parallel track, Mongan stepped into his LGBTQ identity over many years. While he felt he was gay from a young age, Mongan came out as “homoflexible” on Instagram when he was 15 because, for the first time, he found himself attracted to a girl; a year later, he exclusively considered himself gay. The COVID-19 pandemic was when Mongan more confidently felt he was attracted to women, and he now identifies as bisexual. “I think it’s perfectly normal for people to still be figuring things out [about their sexuality] during their adolescence,” he explained, “and things are bound to constantly change.” As for his long-term plans, he will probably marry a woman (if he marries at all), but that doesn’t stop him from being proud of his place in the LGBTQ community.
Students like Mongan complicate the narrative many have of LGBTQ Jews. In Orthodoxy, the two identities are seen as practically irreconcilable, and the religious landscape of LGBTQ Jews — especially those at YU — is often thought of in monolithic terms: anti-religious agitators seeking to uproot Torah values. The reality is that many LGBTQ Jews are navigating their religious identities just as YU students do in general.
I thought about this when I spoke to one Beren student (SCW ‘22), who requested to go by the alias “Eliana,” about her identification with Modern Orthodoxy. She’s also bisexual and grew up in the Modern Orthodox community, attending mainstream Jewish schools and even going to seminary in Israel for two years. “I still believe I have a good relationship with Hashem, I want to be religious and I love Judaism — I think it’s really beautiful,” she told me over Zoom, noting the difficulties she faces given her sexuality. Despite those grievances, she cherishes her relationship with God.
“I don’t think Hashem is evil and bad. I actually think He’s really cool,” Eliana went on, explaining that she doesn’t believe being LGBTQ is a sin. “Why would He say, ‘Welcome to the world. You’re gay, you can’t choose to be gay, you can’t change it and you’re a terrible person who’s going to hell’? I think God put me in the world to create diversity.”
Achieving that diversity is something that has historically been fraught with difficulty for YU’s LGBTQ students. Understanding the present climate, however, begins in late 2018 when student leaders met with President Ari Berman and other university administrators to discuss LGBTQ equality on campus and push for an official Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Club. Meeting after meeting, though, the student leaders felt their efforts were hopeless, but when September 2019 rolled around, things took a turn.
Tired of what they saw as administrators’ empty promises, more than 100 LGBTQ students, allies and activists marched to Wilf Campus with a list of five demands aimed at addressing LGBTQ issues at YU; one of those again called for an official GSA club. From then on, the conversation surrounding LGBTQ students at YU became more widespread on campus. Several months later in February 2020, students submitted an application for YU to officially approve the formation of the YU Pride Alliance, a club for LGBTQ students. When the request reached the seven student council presidents, however, they abstained from voting on its passage, and the request was tossed to the administration.
In the following months, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, so a university determination was put on hold. But as the summer concluded, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Chaim Nissel emailed undergraduate students that YU would not approve an LGBTQ club. Instead, he included information about new LGBTQ inclusivity policies. The number of LGBTQ-related events at YU increased, including a university-sponsored panel on “Being LGBTQ+ In an Orthodox World.”
Things escalated when the Alliance, along with three alumni and one student, sued YU for discrimination under New York City Human Rights Law in April 2021, citing the school’s continued refusal to approve an LGBTQ club on campus. Currently still in court, the case is expecting a final ruling in February, though its future is uncertain.
While the outcome of this case has significant implications for LGBTQ students, it doesn’t define all of their experiences at YU. Eliana laughed as she recounted how many of her friends are confused about her heavy involvement at YU because they mistakenly believe she hates it. “I really like it here, overall,” she said.
During her second year in seminary, Eliana had to rethink her next steps as her original plans crumbled. Caught between attending Touro and YU, she met with a YU admissions officer who convinced her that it would be the best place for her. “I don’t regret my decision at all,” she told me, which she finds ironic because she never imagined herself at YU.
Once YU began, she connected with other LGBTQ students. “Pretty much at orientation, I found out about the underground LGBTQ community,” Eliana recalled. This community, she explained, consisted of a single WhatsApp group for LGBTQ students at YU, a meager support system that she was grateful to find. As time went on, Eliana developed a “confidence of her sexual identity” and became more involved in YU’s LGBTQ community.
This all contributes to Eliana’s current affiliation with Modern Orthodoxy. “I can still be your Stern girl who keeps Shabbos and kosher and loves Hashem, but I also am LGBTQ+, and there are minor tweaks I need to make it work,” she said. Eliana’s religious identity extends beyond her sexuality — such as with her love for learning Torah and practicing hospitality by hosting large Shabbat meals. “In Modern Orthodoxy, you can find a community that accepts you, and I think you get the best of both worlds.”
A different Beren student (SCW ‘24), who requested anonymity, also grew up in the Modern Orthodox community and had similar experiences. This student is pansexual, meaning she can be attracted to people regardless of their sex or gender. Since she was young, she knew about her sexuality. “I knew since about seventh grade, but I basically ignored it,” she said. “In tenth grade, I fell into a friend group that was generally queer,” which was when her sexuality started playing a more active role in her life.
In the summer before eleventh grade, she went to the Pride March in New York City with her friend and even came out to her mom about her sexuality soon after. Then, four days before school started, her principal emailed her to come in with her parents.
“I told my parents I had no idea what was going on,” she recollected, describing her feelings of angst and uncertainty. When they arrived, the principal presented screenshots of her social media posts, along with anonymous complaints that she pressured other students to “agree with her” on issues like gay marriage. The principal framed the meeting to be about “safety issues,” but it essentially concerned the student speaking publicly about her sexuality.
In the end, the student was forced to sign a contract with her school agreeing to abide by restrictive guidelines on her personal life. In twelfth grade, the student recalled, the principal laughingly told her that she “threw [her] under the bus” by pinning those complaints on her — even though they were not actually about this student — “because it was easy.”
When this transpired, the student’s parents were concerned that her sexuality “became a part of [her] identity.” Her father’s biggest concerns were if their community leaders knew about her sexuality and how it could affect her siblings’ potential shidduchim (matches). “I think my biggest disconnect with Judaism and the reason why I don’t necessarily want to be religious is because of this, but not because of an intellectual reason as much,” she said. “So I usually try to ignore this because I think it’s too emotional — I’m very much a rationalist.”
Today, she is proud of her LGBTQ identity and considers herself to be “pretty classic” Modern Orthodox. “I definitely identify as a religious person,” the student went on, emphasizing that she does not have any “hate” toward the halakhic system — “a genius system” that she marvels at. She’s passionate about her Judaism, specifically the intellectual aspects. “When I think about being Jewish, I think about learning Torah,” she explained.
The challenges this student faced on her journey of self-discovery were ones similar to those faced by most LGBTQ students, including Mongan and Eliana.
During the time Mongan originally came out as homoflexible, the Bnei Akiva camp he planned to attend that summer — which he had gone to for around five years — questioned if he could return as a camper; parents were concerned with someone gay sharing a bunk with their children. “What these parents didn’t realize was that my identity did not put their children at risk,” he said. “People mistakenly think that just because we’re attracted to the same sex, it means we’re attracted to everyone. That’s just not true.”
Around that same time, Mongan’s coming-out Instagram post circulated on a large group chat of kids his age from camp, many of whom ridiculed him. (Mongan was excluded from the chat but received screenshots from a friend.) When he began at yeshiva, he was openly gay but did not initiate that fact to others. Still, knowledge of his sexuality somehow circulated around the yeshiva at the onset of the year, leading fellow students to approach and ask him about it.
In Eliana’s case, she faced more seemingly innocuous incidents, such as when her seminary rabbi compared homosexuality to bestiality during a shiur. After the LGBTQ march at YU, she constantly heard students talking about the LGBTQ community in insensitive and hurtful ways. A different time, one of her friends ended their friendship after learning about Eliana’s allyship with the community.
For other students, like Jack Wieder (YC ‘23), those hardships still take form at YU today.
Last spring, Wieder tried to assemble a group of roommates to live with in a Washington Heights apartment near Wilf Campus. Finding an apartment is generally not a smooth process, but for Wieder, his search for roommates had another concern: Guys didn’t want to live with him because he was gay.
“I had three groups of guys tell me that they did not feel comfortable to live with me [because I was gay], and I also had a rosh yeshiva tell someone not to live with me,” Wieder shared. “That to me was very hurtful.”
He added, “Over time, it stung and hurt a lot more. It made me feel like I was not welcome.”
On a day-to-day basis, though, Wieder doesn’t feel homophobia at YU and has even found support from some of his teachers. “I’m very grateful for the rebbeim and faculty who have been there for me and listened to my stories and issues,” he shared. “I even had one rabbi ask me about my dating life — that meant a lot to me.”
Wieder doesn’t believe most people at YU are malicious when they say homophobic and hurtful things to him. “It’s just that they are not taught to be better and almost don’t want to be better,” he explained. “It’s a very big lack of education.”
The main problem he encounters is the inability to fully express himself. “Campus culture is not a welcoming environment to people like me,” he said. While he is thriving academically with his shaped major in global health, as well as being on the cross country team, Wieder knows that to fix these issues, YU needs serious change. For him, an LGBTQ club is only a partial solution — he wants to change campus culture.
Wieder comes from the mainstream Modern Orthodox background most YU students do. He went to a Modern Orthodox high school in New Jersey and subsequently spent two years at a hesder yeshiva in Israel. While in yeshiva, he realized how important Israel was to him, and he tried to join the Israeli Defense Forces but could not due to personal reasons.
Wieder knew that he was gay since middle school, and he kept it hidden through high school, coming out to his first friend when he was 16. While he was in yeshiva, he came out to a few friends, his madrich and one rabbi. Now, two years out of Israel, Wieder is openly gay, and he is still exploring his religious identity.
“I’m just trying to find my place and how I feel connected,” he said. “I’m kind of seeing what works for me and what feels comfortable.”
But as he figures things out, Wieder does not want to be objectified and ostracized because he is gay. “It’s really hard when who you are is constantly debated by other people who don’t deserve an opinion on the matter,” he lamented. “What gives people the right to have an opinion on something they don’t actually know anything about?”
This is something that these featured LGBTQ students agreed upon: They want their experiences to be known, but they don’t want to be judged because of them. They, too, have passions and aspirations for their college years, stories and lives that preceded their undergraduate years at YU. When those human elements are ignored, however, judgment and isolation become easier.
Eliana noted that the campus attitude is particularly upsetting to her. “Knowing that there are people who just don’t like me or don’t agree with my ‘choices’ — I put that in quotation marks because your sexual orientation is not a choice — has been one of the more difficult things of coming out as bisexual,” she told me. “I can’t really fathom that you don’t like me because I like girls? I don’t really get that.”
Mongan agreed. “We are all part of the One [God],” he said. “So if you love yourself, then you have to love everyone else — they are just as much a part of the One as yourself. Love everyone — it’s as simple as that.”
Conversations like these bring a new face to the caricatures usually drawn up of the LGBTQ Jewish community, and those profiled here are just four of YU’s dozens of LGBTQ students. Rather than being an exact representation of the community’s religious demographics, these personalities showcase what many fail to understand about LGBTQ Jews: Just like the Jewish community at large, they, too, are finding their place, both at YU and in — or out of — Judaism.
Editor’s Note: If you are an LGBTQ student at YU looking to connect with the undergraduate LGBTQ community, you can email email@example.com to learn more. Leo Mongan also shared that he is available to LGBTQ students looking for support, advice or questions, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Leo Mongan